Francis Cammaerts SOE agent


June 19, 1916 - July 3, 2006

Outstanding SOE agent who organised French Resistance groups to sabotage German communications

REGISTERED as a conscientious objector before the Second World War, Francis Cammaerts felt he could no longer stand aside after his brother was killed while serving with the RAF. A fluent French speaker with a deep affection for the country, he became one of the most outstanding agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France. Curiously for one who was to prove so successful, he was initially assessed as “lacking in dash” and “not suitable as a leader”.
The SOE was founded on Winston Churchill’s order to “set Europe ablaze” after the fall of France in June 1940. SOE operations in France were not helped by the division of the country into an occupied zone, embracing the North and the Atlantic Coast, and the area under the administration of the Pétain Government at Vichy. Until the US entered the war in December 1941, the defeat of Germany appeared a distant prospect, and French citizens who chose to support SOE did so at great personal risk.

Francis Charles Albert Cammaerts was born in London, son of Professor Emile Cammaerts, a Belgian poet and patriot. He became a pacifist in the 1930s while at Cambridge, where he read English and history at St Catharine’s College and won a hockey Blue. He began a teaching career at Cabin Hill School, Belfast, in 1937, and became an agricultural labourer in 1940 as an alternative to military service.

He left farming to join SOE in October 1942. After training, he was flown into northern France in March 1943 by a single-engined Lysander monoplane piloted by Squadron Leader Hugh Verity of 161 Squadron RAF. The Westland Lysander, designed for army co-operation and reconnaissance, was vulnerable to German fighter attack in daylight but its short take-off and landing capability and robust undercarriage made it ideal for landing two or sometimes three agents with pinpoint accuracy by night; a feat then impossible by parachute.

More than a dozen SOE circuits were active in France at the time of the German occupation of the area previously under Vichy control in November 1942. Cammaerts was assigned to the “Donkeyman” circuit then operating in the upper Rhône valley, but his SOE reception party drove him first to Paris with a brash disregard for security that alerted him to the risks of such behaviour. Over six feet tall with large feet he felt very conspicuous, so left by the evening train for Annecy to join Donkeyman. But his intuitive zeal for security led him to a safe house in Cannes, where he established a cover as a teacher recuperating from jaundice.

This was the first, and last, time that he spent more than four nights in the same place, as security rather than urgency was the SOE watchword at this stage of the war. He spent his early months in France gradually building his own circuit, “Jockey”, of seven or eight reliable individuals who, thoroughly indoctrinated of the importance of security, set about recruiting potential saboteurs for when the time was ripe. His key to individual safety was to insist that his agents always had a credible reason for what they were doing, if stopped by a German patrol.

In the later months of 1943 he established several small and semi-independent groups, all part of his Jockey circuit, down the left bank of the Rhône between Vienne and Arles and eastwards through the hinterland to the Isère Valley. He travelled by motorcycle to visit each group, but no one knew his real name, nationality or where he lived.

Having established the Jockey circuit as being ready to play its part in sabotaging the German lines of communication and routes north when the Allied invasion came, Cammaerts was recalled to London for briefing in November 1943. While there he raised the problem of the enmity between the agents working in France under the aegis of General de Gaulle’s headquarters and those, many of them French citizens, recruited by SOE’s French section. There was a strongly held view in the Gaullist camps in London and Algiers that it was unconstitutional for French citizens to be recruited by a foreign power. As Britain and the Free French were fighting for the same cause, including the liberation of France, this may seem a very minor quibble. It was never entirely resolved, however, and De Gaulle insisted that all SOE operations in France ceased soon after the liberation of Paris in August 1944.

Cammaerts’s aircraft crashed on landing when he returned to France in February 1944. Fortunately, he was unhurt and hastened to check the readiness of the Jockey circuit. He also visited the 3,000-strong group of maquisards — young Frenchmen who had fled to the Vercors plateau to avoid conscription for forced labour in Germany. In April 1944 he informed SOE’s London headquarters that the “Vercors has a finely organised army, but they need long-distance and anti-tank weapons”.

This was not a request London wished to hear, as the ability of the German Army to deal effectively with guerrillas who tried to stand and fight was already well proven in Yugoslavia. Arms drops were made to the Vercors but did not include heavy weapons.

As soon as the Allied invasion was launched on June 6, 1944, the railway line cutting teams of Jockey and other SOE circuits went into action, proving the value of Cammaerts’s training. In his book, SOE in France, the official historian of the SOE campaign, M. R. D. Foot, records that every train leaving Marseilles for Lyons after D-Day was derailed at least once and in the Indre Department more than 800 lines were cut in June.

But disaster awaited on the Vercors plateau. Cammaerts’s warning that the maquisards needed heavy weapons had been disregarded, not through neglect in London but because it was reckoned, on sound historic precedent, that it was not the role of guerrillas to fight pitched battles.

The Vercors plateau was not within the Jockey circuit. However, after the Normandy invasion Cammaerts was appointed head of Allied missions in southeastern France. Consequently he was present when elements of at least two German divisions with tactical air support attacked the Vercors maquisards in mid-July. The plateau cliff tops were fiercely contested, but the result was a foregone conclusion. When the order was given for the maquisards to seek what hiding they could find, Cammaerts left the region in despair.

Subsequently, he was satisfied to see his Jockey and neighbouring SOE teams supporting Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France launched on August 15, 1944. SOE teams held open the route from Cannes, through Digne and Gap to Grenoble, to allow the Allied armies, comprising American and French divisions, to clear the lower Rhône, although many units of the German 19th Army — already further north — escaped into Alsace.

It was at this point, despite his meticulous care for security, that he and two colleagues were arrested by the Gestapo in Digne. They may not have realised Cammaerts’s significance, but it was because of the sheer nerve and resolve of his courier, Christina Skarbek, an alluring and dynamic Polish woman who had avoided arrest, that the three were eventually released.

She confronted a French liaison officer to the Gestapo and a Belgian interpreter with the news that the leading US troops would arrive within hours and she would ensure they were handed over to the town’s avenging mob unless they co-operated. Terrified, they engineered the three officers’ release. This was the final chapter of a total for Cammaerts of 15 months in occupied France. (Christina Skarbek was tragically murdered in London by an unwanted suitor in 1952.)
Cammaerts was awarded the DSO for his leadership and gallantry in France but, as in the case of others who operated in enemy-held territory for prolonged periods, he gave great credit to the ordinary French people who provided him and his companions with safety and comfort. In the BBC TV series Secret Agent, broadcast in 2000, he said: “The most important element was the French housewife who fed us, clothed us and kept us cheerful.”

He was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1945, the US Medal of Freedom in 1947 and advanced to Officer of the Légion d’Honneur in 1991.

After demobilisation he worked with the International Agency for Reparations in Brussels. He returned to teaching in 1952 and was headmaster of a school in Stevenage for nine years. He was principal of the City of Leicester College of Education, 1961-66, and Professor of Education in Nairobi, 1966-72. He came out of retirement at 65 to go to Botswana to start up a new college for mixed-ability teacher training in 1981. He finally retired in 1987.

Cammaerts married in 1941 Nancy, daughter of James Finlay, architect to the Leeds education committee. She predeceased him, as did one of his daughters. He is survived by a son and two daughters.

Francis Cammaerts, DSO, leader of the wartime SOE circuits in southeast France, was born on June 19, 1916. He died on July 3, 2006, aged 90.

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